As the academic year winds down, scores of anthropology students across the country are preparing for an important ritual: heading off to a remote location to conduct research in the field.
For many, the chance to dig for fossils in a far corner of the globe or observe primates in the wild is a dream come true – a coveted, even essential step on the road to an academic career.
But for some, the opportunity can become an unhappy ordeal, filled with experiences that range from feelings of exclusion by colleagues to harassment, abuse and, in extreme cases, sexual assault.
So says a team of U.S. researchers behind an online survey on anthropology fieldwork experiences. Several Canadians have responded to the confidential survey, which has been advertised through social media and anthropology websites. Initial findings were presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
"It's not that people don't know about it, it's that we've all felt really powerless to know what to do about it," said Kathryn Clancy, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the survey.
Prof. Clancy said she was alerted to the issue when a friend told of being raped at a field site – and the barriers she encountered when seeking action.
Once Prof. Clancy began exploring the subject in blog posts, "the floodgates opened," she said, as more people sought her out to relate their experiences. Together with three colleagues, she decided a more systematic approach was needed to determine what factors might make a given anthropological field site more likely to be a risky venue for students and young scientists.
The team has received 536 responses in less than three months since the survey began, with a smaller number participating in follow-up phone interviews.
In a preliminary analysis of the first 124 responses, nearly 60 per cent said they had experienced inappropriate or sexual remarks while working at an anthropological field site, while 18 per cent said they had experienced physical sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact – in some cases up to and including rape. The harassment was reported by both men and women, with younger female researchers the most frequent victims.
By design, the survey could not address the question of how prevalent such incidents may be. Nevertheless, Prof. Clancy said, the survey suggests the profession needs to address the issue.
"It highlights the need to bring this out into the open," said Katherine MacKinnon, a primatologist at Saint Louis University. Dr. MacKinnon added that among the survey's more disturbing findings is that a victim is more likely to be harassed by a superior than by a peer or someone unaffiliated with the academic work at a site.
"Power differentials between mentors and students and the abuse of power is something we should all be thinking about," said Tina Moffat, president of the Canadian Association of Physical Anthropologists and an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
Dr. Moffat said harassment in the field has not been an issue on the association's agenda thus far, but added that "we will consider it this summer" when the association puts together an ethics statement for its members.
Most researchers and graduate students in anthropology will spend time working at field sites or at field schools over the course of their training, but Canadian anthropology departments vary in how much they prepare students and staff for potential problems in the field. Some have developed safety protocols that specifically cover inappropriate behaviour. Others consider field sites to be an extension of the campus and governed by the same code of conduct. However, this may not equip young researchers to deal with problems they encounter at sites that are not run by their home institutions.
In their survey, Dr. Clancy and her colleagues found that inappropriate behaviour was more likely to arise at smaller, less formal work sites where codes of conduct might not be spelled out or enforced.
"Figuring out how to make really transparent reporting procedures at all field sites would be a possible next step," said Heather Shattuck-Heidorn, a graduate student in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University who chaired the session at which Dr. Clancy presented her findings.
Yet there are signs that those who experience or are aware of harassment are inhibited about reporting it because doing so could jeopardize their careers. Prof. Clancy described the toll on one male researcher who was interviewed for the survey: "It was almost unbearable for him because he had witnessed such systematic sexual assault at his site and for years had not spoken up because he was so afraid that his dissertation would be shut down."
The online survey has been broadened to include other field-based sciences, Dr. Clancy said. It remains open until May 10.